- Successful Mediocrity:The Career of Polyperchon
Justin (13.1.12–13) famously admired the qualities of Alexander’s generals, observing “For never before that time did Macedonia, or indeed any other nation, produce so rich a crop of brilliant men, men who had been picked out with such care, first by Philip and then by Alexander, that they seemed chosen less as comrades in arms than as successors to the throne” (Yardley 1994, 123–24). Like Alexander, many of the officers who marched east with him demonstrated mental toughness, political ruthlessness, and military competence. Polyperchon, son of Simmias, proved a partial exception.
Though Polyperchon also acted with ruthless violence on occasion, compared to many of the other Successors, he demonstrated modest (or worse) command skills. Perhaps more striking, at moments of military and political crisis, he appeared to second guess himself or perhaps suffer a failure of nerve; neither reaction was a common or forgivable failing, on the face of it, in the Macedonian elite. Waldemar Heckel memorably judged him “a jackal among lions” (1992, 188). Other scholars have described Polyperchon in similarly slighting terms.1 Yet first Alexander—the very man Justin claims chose his leaders with such care—and later Antipater—known for his judiciousness—chose this mediocrity for critical posts. Even late in Polyperchon’s career, despite his previous failures, both Antigonus and Cassander tried to employ him. At two points in his life, Polyperchon seemed poised for greatness, yet [End Page 1] greatness never arrived; indeed, on the second occasion, Polyperchon conspicuously and consciously avoided it. Nonetheless, he survived long after many of his more competent contemporaries had perished on the battlefield or from treachery. Whatever the exact date of his death (see below), Polyperchon died old, still conniving and contriving against his remaining rivals.
This article attempts to understand why a man with such limitations not only survived but sometimes prospered. While it assesses his generalship, it focuses on Polyperchon’s political role in the era of the Successors and what his career tells us about the political dynamic of the period and of dealings within the ruling Macedonian elite. In recent years, only Heckel2 has examined Polyperchon’s career in a general way, though several scholars3 have attempted to untangle assorted problems that relate to specific events in his long life. Because Polyperchon, son of Simmias, is anything but the best known of the Successors, I will begin with an overview of his lengthy career and its three major phases.
He was roughly contemporary in age with Philip II (who was born in 382).4 Polyperchon came from Tymphaea (Diod. 17.57.2), a region long considered part of Epirus but incorporated into Macedonia early in the reign of Philip II, only after Polyperchon had reached adulthood.5 [End Page 2] The four sons of Andromenes (one of whom was named Simmias) were likely related to Polyperchon; possibly he was their maternal uncle.6 These brothers, because of their close relationship to Philotas, came under suspicion after the elimination of Parmenio and Philotas in 330, but were acquitted, perhaps because of their prominence (Heckel 1992, 178). Polyperchon and the four brothers may have belonged to the former princely family of Tymphaea;7 while there can be no certainty, several factors suggest this.8 Polyperchon commanded the Tymphaean taxis and three of the four brothers commanded taxeis at one time or another. If a recent restoration is correct, the Delphians honored Polyperchon with a proxeny decree, probably shortly before his departure for the Asian campaign.9 Polyperchon’s close relationship with the royal house of Molossia (see below) seems suggestive too, as does his decision, when attempting to establish Heracles (Alexander’s son by Barsine) on the Macedonian throne, to launch his invasion through Tymphaea, hoping [End Page 3] to get back his lands (Diod. 20.28.1–3); possibly this was the second time (see below) he led an invading force into Macedonia through his home region.10 Throughout his career Polyperchon’s identity apparently remained anchored in his Tymphaean homeland and he continued to manipulate philia networks he had likely inherited. As we have noted, he...